You think of “Buick”, and about nine times out of ten, you picture the 2005 LeSabre in your Grandfather’s garage. The same one that has less than 28K miles on the clock because he swears it will be a classic in twenty years and he is babying it so the value stays high.
Everyone knows that stigma. Only those who have an AARP membership card in their wallet would walk away from the dealership with the red, white, and blue “tri-shield“ on their key chain. That or one of the homeboys in your homeroom who just turned sixteen and inherited their 2001 Regal GS from an aging family member. Buick hasn’t really been geared for the “youth” market for the past 25 years. Buick has owned that, with the weird exception of the Chinese market where Buick is flourishing. They know their American market and they cater to it.
It’s also known that Buick has always tried to gain a foothold in the youth market. But it takes more than slapping a supercharger to a Regal to draw in young people. However, with rumor mills and teasers of a “GNX” possible in the vehicle lineup, maybe it’s time to rewind the clock and look back when Buick came close to being “cool”. When Buick flew close to the sun.
Time to strap on those Nike high-tops, throw on that Member’s Only jacket, and take a ride in a time machine back to the mid-1980’s. Try and put yourself in the mindset of a young professional with money to burn and you’re looking for a sweet new ride to cruise around town in. However, you want to stay domestic, because after hearing all of those war stories your grandfather told you, he would bayonet you at Christmas time if you pulled into his driveway with one of them. What is the performance car market like during the mid-1980’s? Japan has a good foothold with the Supra MK-II, the Nissan 300z, and the Mazda RX-7, but that’s out of the question, because of the potential bayoneting. America had its choices with the Fox-body Mustang, the C4 Corvette, and the Camaro/Trans Am. But these American cars were basically legacy vehicles trying to reclaim their glory days. Sure, they were fantastic in the 1960’s, but ran short on performance during the smog-choking, malaise era of the 1970’s with the aforementioned models desperately trying to shake off that persona.
At this point, you’re hearing your father, a product of the 1960’s, reliving the glory days and talking about stories of cheap muscle in his Buick Gran Sport. You’re thinking to yourself, muscle car and Buick don’t belong in the same sentence together!? However, Buick had something cooking and it came in the way of forced induction.
Buick took advantage of their success in NASCAR, coining the adage “what wins on Sunday, sells on Monday.” They debuted the Buick Regal Grand National in 1982 (alibi not the famous Turbocharged one). However, what isn’t widely known is this sparked an attempt at a performance division that Buick forced on to many unsuspecting models.
The first spark of performance touching the lineup was the Buick Riviera, which received the T-Type turbo package in 1981. The Riviera T-Type was more so a way to compensate for the loss of the Buick 350ci V8 and switching to the V6 with a turbo, a common practice used today; remove a larger engine and replace with a smaller engine with a turbo to create the same amount of power, but improve efficiency. The Riviera was deemed a great success by Buick, with its whirring, peppy turbo V6 that was seen as a more modern alternative to and outsold its platform brothers, the Cadillac Eldorado and Olds Toronado.
The next, and more popular model, was the Regal T-Type. This Regal was the Grand National’s fraternal twin. Everything was exactly the same mechanically (excluding when the GNX came around) as the Grand National, the only main difference was the appearance. The Grand National is claimed by Buick to only be an “appearance” package for the T-Type, with a blacked out grille, jet-black paint, black interior, and that sweet whirl-decal. The Buick Regal T-Type was every bit as fast as its menacing twin. If you ask the right T-Type owner, they may argue that the T-Type was faster because its non-appearance package wheels were made of aluminum and were lighter than that of the Grand National’s steel wheels. Both cars achieved 4.7 seconds for 0-60, which was beating the Ferrari Mondial of the same vintage. The fastest American car built up to that point in the US automotive history. Well, at least in a straight line.
The absolutely necessary fog machine.
The G-body Buick was so popular, in order to keep capitalizing on the Grand National/Regal’s success, they had to extend the RWD model production just to meet demand beyond its production cycle in 1987.
The success that Buick saw here with these variances in the Regal reinvigorated the Buick prowess in the American market. It was a throwback to the 1960’s where American cars had muscle and speed (primarily in a straight line). Critics would say it was unorthodox to have an American muscle car with anything smaller than a V8, let alone with a turbocharger, but it sure bucked the stereotype of “no replacement for displacement.”
Car and Driver review in 1985, old muscle vs.new.
With this gained success, Buick tried to keep capitalizing on its newfound niche by attaching the “T-Type” moniker on more models, hoping to add flair to the line-up.
The T-Type: adding sex appeal, one Buick at a time
There was the Buick Skyhawk T-Type; a FWD, subcompact J-Body car that had a 1.8L turbocharged engine mated to a 3-speed slushbox, killing any potential the car could have had. My father owned one, describing his only fond memory in it where my older brother puked over all over the back seat. Oh, the glory days.
J-Body Skyhawk T-Type
The Buick Skylark had the T-Type treatment as a trim level for at least three years from 1983-1985, though it never received a turbo. Even the Buick Century and LeSabre saw the T-Type, but by the time it graced those models, the turbo was no longer part of the equation. One would assume the “T” in T-Type would mean turbo, but in these cases it probably meant “tacky” or “tarnish.” T-Type was no longer an advertisement for performance as it did for a step up in trim from the basic. Which, looking at the history of the T-Type badge, most Buicks in that line up were more like duds than real performers.
What happened to Buick?
The Buick performance division was more a social experiment for the company: a way to test the waters and see if there was a viable market. Watching “Black Air: The Grand National Documentary” (which I recommend to everyone), you can pull the opinion that Buick didn’t really have its heart in the fight for performance. It wasn’t a failure by any means, especially with the claim of beating almost all sports cars of the time as well as being the current fastest factory American-built car. Sadly, much like Mazda now, who said they have matured away from building any new MazdaSpeed cars, Buick did the same as they transitioned away from RWD platforms of the 1990’s, which almost completely erased away the oddities like Regal T-type and Grand National.
However, I believe Buick held on to a small sliver of that bold spirit on their way into the 1990’s; the same that led them to make the Grand National.
1989 Buick Reatta
The Buick Reatta. The overlooked, over-engineered beauty that I believe was the last gasp of air for the fight to be relevant and modern; before Buick thought they could throw a supercharger on an engine and call it a day.
This beauty was hand crafted, not assembled, in a special workshop known as the “Reatta Craft Centre” (the –re on Centre makes it fancy). It was geared to be the new flagship for the brand. Coming in with 170 horses and 220 ft/lbs from the ever stalwart Buick 3800 V6 engine, complete with independent suspension, and disc brakes all around. This modern art effigy on wheels even featured a touch screen with climate control, internal computer diagnostics, and an optional CD player. What was completely standard for almost every car made since 2010, these were the future in 1988 when the Reatta debuted.
However, the Reatta was a niche’ filler. Somewhere between the Pontiac Fiero and the Cadillac Allante, I would speculate it was aimed to be a touring car, which is probably why it was never given a manual transmission. It was also plagued with electronic gremlins, which thwarted off a lot of prospective customers. Performance was more so in line with comfort rather than speed. The price tag of approximately $25,000 in 1990’s dollars was also a little steep for such a bold venture. In four short years, the Reatta was no more. Gone was what I see as the last bold attempt from Buick to break its own mold.
Will the Grand National return to the Buick line-up? Or are they going to put some hood scoops on a Regal and call it a day? I hold hope that they try to break their comfort zone again. God knows they are overdue for it.